The Switchboard: Did the NSA pay a company $10 million to make weak encryption the default?

December 23, 2013
Margaret Atwood's most recent novel, MaddAddam(credit: Nan A. Talese)
Margaret Atwood's most recent novel, MaddAddam(credit: Nan A. Talese)

Published every weekday, the Switchboard highlights five tech policy stories you need to read.

Virtual reality, real spies. In an op-ed in the New York Times, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood discusses the connections between art and life when it comes to the news that the NSA has been infiltrating online worlds: "But the pinging was connected to my own recent simulacrum, the three-book “MaddAddam” series, in which some of the characters use online video games as portals to secret chat rooms where they can communicate free of government surveillance."

Atwood, who was among a group of authors who signed a recent letter protesting government surveillance programs, goes on to make some Dystopian predictions for a world without digital privacy. "Possibly in the future you’ll no longer be permitted to be who you think you are, or even who you’re pretending to be: You will be who they say you are, based on your data-mined, snooped-upon online presence. You’ll be stuck with that definition of yourself. You won’t be able to take off the mask."

The NSA is trying to have it both ways on its domestic spying programs.   The Switch's Timothy B. Lee wrote about a declaration from acting Deputy NSA Director Frances Fleich that litigating a constitutional challenged to NSA programs could reveal operational details about the program and tip off terrorists to the best ways to avoid detection. "Fleisch's argument suggests that the agency expects the American people to simply trust it to use its vast spying powers responsibly without meaningful public oversight," says Lee, adding, "that's not how domestic surveillance is supposed to work.

These HealthCare.gov files could aid hackers. And Darrell Issa may release them.  "Significant security vulnerabilities are still being uncovered in the Obama administration's health-insurance Web site, nearly three months after the launch of HealthCare.gov," writes The Switch's Brian Fung. "The debate over the security of HealthCare.gov has raised questions about whether similar vulnerabilities exist in systems across the federal government," Fung explains, but that may not stop Rep. Darrell Issa from releasing details about those vulnerabilities as part of his investigation into the Web site's problems.

Secret contract tied NSA and security industry pioneer. Joseph Menn at Reuters reports that "as a key part of a campaign to embed encryption software that it could crack into widely used computer products, the U.S. National Security Agency arranged a secret $10 million contract with RSA, one of the most influential firms in the computer security industry." RSA responded to the allegations in a blog post, saying the company "never entered into any contract or engaged in any project with the intention of weakening RSA’s products, or introducing potential ‘backdoors’ into our products for anyone’s use." But the blog post also notes that the company worked with the NSA "both as a vendor and an active member of the security community."

In tech buying, U.S. still stuck in last century. "Outside experts, members of Congress, technology executives and former government officials say the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s website is the nearly inevitable result of a procurement process that stifles innovation and wastes taxpayer dollars," write Michael D. Shear and Annie Lowry for the New York Times. "Multinational companies with large legal teams are often successful at winning years-long government contracts. But officials say technology innovation — particularly on web-based projects like the health care site — is often found in smaller firms, like many in Silicon Valley, that lack the size and the know-how to navigate the costly procurement maze."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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